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A Tribute to Botanical Artist Marianne North on Her 185th Birthday

In a time when women were expected to be homemakers, Marianne North was a globetrotting adventurer.

by Becky Ferreira
Oct 24 2015, 2:30pm

“Flowers of a Jasmine and a Pink Begonia, Borneo” by Marianne North. Image: The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The botanical artist Marianne North, born this day in 1830, was a brilliant trailblazer in the history of both art and science, and a feminist paragon to boot. Chafed by the restrictive expectations for women of her time, North eschewed life as a typical English noblewoman, opting instead to talk botany with Charles Darwin; travel solo to farflung, dangerous locations; and build an exquisite collection of paintings depicting exotic flora from her international adventures, which remains on display to this day.

In an era when ladies were expected to be homemakers, North was a restless nomad, always searching for her next botanical subject.

"I am a very wild bird, and like liberty," she confided in her journal.

"Himalayan Oak and Birds, Nainee Tal, India" by Marianne North. Image: The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

North was Raised by aristocratic parents in Hastings, England. She developed her thirst for travel at an early age thanks to her family's frequent trips around Europe. Her botanical interests were likewise nurtured by her father's social connections with prominent naturalists like William Hooker, George Bentham, and Darwin himself.

Surrounded by these inspiring influences, North became intent on life as a botanical artist by the time she was in her twenties. Of course, normally a lady of her social standing would be expected to marry and run her own household at this age, but North made it clear that she found the idea of wifehood to be thoroughly repellent.

She called marriage "a terrible experiment" that forced women into lives of servitude, and argued that she would be better disposed as a companion and assistant to her father, the Liberal MP Frederick North, with whom she was very close.

This arrangement worked beautifully for both father and daughter, and the pair traveled as far as Syria and Egypt together. But when Frederick North passed away in 1869, Marianne, at the age of 39, faced true independence for the first time. She mourned him deeply, writing that "he was first to last the one idol and friend of my life, and apart from him I had little pleasure and no secrets."

But having inherited both his wealth as well as his wanderlust, North realized that her private ambition to become a globetrotting botanist and artist was, at last, within reach. "I had long dreamed of going to some tropical country to paint its peculiar vegetation on the spot in natural abundant luxuriance," she mused. Now, all she had to do was pack her bags and explore.

"A South African Water-Plant in Flower and Fruit" by Marianne North. Image: The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

And boy, did she ever make good on that dream. In 1871, North crossed the Atlantic Ocean to document the plantlife of North America, traveling from Boston to Washington DC, where she was hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant. She then took a steamer from New York City to Jamaica where she lived for a month in "a state of ecstasy" (her words) as she painted the rich tropical flora.

This initial cross-continental adventure, it turned out, was just the warmup round. For the next decade and a half, North visited the western United States, Canada, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, the Seychelles, and Chile. She even made a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 1880, on the recommendation of Darwin.

"Mount Fuji" by Marianne North. Image: The Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

These voyages produced hundreds of gorgeous oil paintings in North's unusual style, which emphasizes the ecological interactions of the plants with other organisms in their environment.

North was notorious for traveling alone and off-the-beaten path, often disappearing into remote, uninhabited areas for long stretches of time in pursuit of the most visually striking plants. She discovered many new species on these solo outings, some of which are named after her, and gained a reputation back at home for her captivating portraits.

Marianne North's portrait of Nepenthes northiana, or "Miss North's pitcher plant," a species named for her. Image: Marianne North

Luckily for all of us, North's last passion project was collecting all of the fruits of her labor and displaying them in a gallery at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London, which was built specifically to house her corpus. She spent the last years of her life arranging a total of 832 paintings by region in the intimate space, before she died at the age of 59 in 1890.

Interior of the Marianne North Gallery. Image: Patche99z

The Marianne North Gallery is still open to visitors today, and remains the only permanent solo exhibition by a female artist in Britain, according to Kew Gardens. To celebrate this badass explorer's 185th birthday, I recommend scrolling through this comprehensive online gallery of her works.

Whether it's her gorgeous depictions of ecological relationships or her talent for expressing spectacular floral colors, Marianne North packed a lot of adventure into one life, and left plenty behind for the rest of us to marvel over.

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